As I’ve been doing the research for my book (which is almost finished) I’ve come across some interesting, strange, and even bizarre characters living in Western Australia in the early 1900s. It has been a constant struggle not to leave what I’m doing and go chasing after their stories on Trove.
A few get a brief mention in my book, including the indomitable Mrs Tracey, whose story Jessica Barratt has told in wonderful detail on her blog. Another is Harcourt Whipple Ellis. Even the little I’ve learned about him suggests that he was a colourful and slippery character.
Ellis arrived in Western Australia from Melbourne, having been born somewhere in England (he constantly changed his story about where he was born). He found his way to the goldfields, where, in 1894 he was charged with unlawfully wounding a man, John Dougatt. In court, Ellis argued that he had shot Dougatt in self defence. The case seems to have been adjourned indefinitely, after an elusive witness for the defence failed to arrive at the court.
In 1896 he popped up again, this time in Roebourne, when he nominated for the Northern Province seat in the Legislative Council. He was described at the time as a chemist. Apparently he wasn’t elected, because in 1897 he was in the news again, charged in the Roebourne Police Court with selling potassium cyanide without labelling it as poison or asking the buyer what it was to be used for. He was fined two pounds.
The following year he was in court again, for having sold medicine to a coloured man. The problem, it seems, was that Ellis wasn’t registered to prescribe medicine. In September 1899 he was charged with “attending, examining and prescribing” for two people without being registered under the Medical Practitioners Act. He was found guilty of one charge and fined.
Undeterred, he began describing himself as a “Lecturer and Clinical Demonstrator in the Kobe School of Medicine”. In January 1901 he advertised himself as the contact person for those wishing to become understudies to the Japanese Government Bacteriologist, Mr Jiro Kamasitti. Applicants were advised that a fee of one thousand guineas per year was payable in advance to a Japanese bank (presumably through him). At the time Ellis was back living in Boulder, on the goldfields. In March the Sun newspaper in Kalgoorlie devoted a full column to describing this wonder living among them and the superiority of Japanese medicine (an article written, I suspect, by Ellis himself.)
Apparently his qualifications didn’t stand up to scrutiny. By September that year he had been charged with performing surgery on a boy’s eyes without being a qualified Medical Practitioner. His defence rested on a technical argument about what constituted surgery. He was found guilty of breaching the Medical Act and fined. That didn’t stop him, and he was in court in Boulder again on a similar charge three months later.
In 1902 he began advertising his services as a dentist and “oculist” ie specialist in eye diseases. By now he was making much of the fact that he bore a strong resemblance to the King, Edward VII. He also took a dig at the police, pointing out that his practice was just across the road from the police station.
The family man
Ellis had left a wife and four children in Victoria when he came to Western Australia. In June 1902 his wife, Martha, sued him for desertion and neglect. She was given custody of the children and he was ordered to pay regular maintenance. During the case, Martha said that Harcourt Whipple Ellis had been an engineer when she married him!
Ellis moved his dental practice to William Street in Perth, to a shop known as “The Jewel of Asia”. The charges laid against him soon became much more serious. In November 1902 a young woman, Maud Pingelly, died in his dental chair. It came out that her death was due to complications of “an illegal operation” ie an abortion. Tragically, during the long court case, the woman’s boyfriend committed suicide by drowning. Ellis was acquitted, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to prove that he had performed the abortion.
In 1903 Ellis was in arrears with his family maintenance and filed for bankruptcy. He was sent to prison for three months. After his release he returned to Roebourne (to avoid Martha?) where he wrote long articles for the newspapers. But by 1906 he was back in Perth, practising as a dental surgeon in Wellington Street.
It wasn’t long before he was charged with having performed another abortion, or more precisely, with “using an instrument with unlawful intent”. Fortunately this time the young woman, Eliza Murphy, didn’t die. The case became a sensation when Dr Swanston, a well-known local doctor, was also arrested and charged with the same offence. Dr Swanston argued that he had been called in to help after Miss Murphy had a miscarriage. After a long trial, at which the medical witnesses could not agree, the pair were found not guilty.
It was this case which led to my discovery of Harcourt Whipple Ellis, since it competed for space in the newspapers in early 1907 with the trial I was following, that of Alice Mitchell. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to find out what happened to Ellis after 1907, although it seems he continued to offer his services as a dentist who did abortions on the side. In 1940,
when he was turning ninety, the Mirror offered this highly imaginative account of his life, and the Sunday Times printed a somewhat whitewashed obituary when he died in 1944.
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